Irish vote for a hopeful future Easy choice: Making their agreement work is the hard part for nationalists and unionists.

May 28, 1998

THE TWIN referendums in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, with a combined favorable vote of 85 percent, promise a new beginning in Northern Ireland. Its place in the United Kingdom is conceded, both nationalisms are legitimized and new forms of cooperation will be established across the communal divide, across the Border and across the Irish Sea.

The 71 percent majority in Northern Ireland for the Good Friday agreement was a closer thing than that figure suggests. With almost all Catholics in favor, the Protestant or unionist community voted about 55 to 45 in favor. A large minority of the majority population opposed the agreement, partly from habit, partly from fear of renewed terrorism and largely from a fear of demographic change that, under the agreement, might transfer the province to the Irish Republic in another generation.

It is one thing to adopt this stunning plan that the British and Irish governments proposed at the suggestion of John Hume, leader of the constitutional nationalists in Northern Ireland. Making it work will be something else. It resembles the so-called Sunningdale plan, which quickly collapsed under unionist opposition in 1974.

The campaign has begun for the June 25 election of 108 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. In the Unionist Party, infighting is fierce between the pro-agreement forces of David Trimble, the party's leader, and colleagues who opposed it. He hopes to purge his party of candidates who would undermine what he did, hoping to force them into the Rev. Ian Paisley's rival Democratic Unionist Party, which boycotted the talks.

In the Catholic community, Sinn Fein hopes to capitalize on its conversion to peaceful politics under Gerry Adams, at the expense of Mr. Hume's Social Democratic and Labor Party. The new provincial government will have a much greater chance if Mr. Hume rather than Mr. Adams becomes Mr. Trimble's minority partner in government.

The disarmament of paramilitary organizations remains a threat to the agreement. Refusal of the IRA to disarm helped enlarge the Protestant backlash. Nonetheless, Mr. Adams and Sinn Fein agreed that the IRA must do so within two years. London and Dublin governments are pledged to enforce this.

So success is hardly assured. Cooperation of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern brought matters this far. The rest is up to the people of Northern Ireland.

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